‘Spices I have, in my Ships’: Crusaders, Caricatures and the Medieval Kitchen

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The image above comes from a manuscript made in the late fourteenth century. The company of the French king, Charles V, sit at a lavish dining table as they watch a re-enactment of the Crusades – complete with an impressive prop ship captained by the legendary hero Godfrey de Bouillon:

A ship with masts, sails and rigging was seen first; she had for colours the arms of the city of Jerusalem: Godfrey de Bouillon appeared on deck, accompanied by several knights armed cap-a-pee: the ship advanced into the middle of the hall, without the machine which moved it being perceptible. Then the city of Jerusalem appeared, with all its towers lined with Saracens. The Ship approached the city: the Christians landed, and began the assault; the besieged made good defence; several scaling-ladders were thrown down; but at length the city was taken.

This interlude brings together jingoistic nationalism with the celebrations of the feast. The association between celebratory food and the triumphal caricaturing of a subdued foreign enemy may seem strange, but it’s deeply rooted in medieval culture. Feasts were filled with symbols of status and hierarchy, with reminders of wealth and dominance. Nicola McDonald writes about the way a medieval delicacy known as ‘the Turk’s head’ – a  pie made to resemble a dark-skinned, long-haired man’s head with a luridly coloured filling, and flavoured with cloves, pepper, sugar and pistachio – reflects the same dehumanising attitudes towards ‘exotic’ foreign enemies that we find in the Crusader romances of the period.

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A Saracen or Ethiopian Crusader battles a Sea-Monster in a Fourteenth-Century Prayerbook

For kings – but also, increasingly through the medieval period, for prosperous people much further down the social scale – images of exotic foreignness went hand in hand with the luxury items for the table. As Charles V and his companions watched their interlude, they ate food flavoured with spices brought in on the same sea routes the Crusaders had followed in reverse.
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Medieval manuscripts are filled with recipies for ginger, for saffron, for cinnamon and mace. By the fifteenth century, we find recipes mentioning not only the spices, but also a new ingredient – sugar – and a play performed around 1500 has a character describe the exotic cargo of his merchant ships: ‘Spycis I hawe..In my shyppes..Gyngere, lycoresse and cannyngale’ (‘Spices I have … in my ships … ginger, liquorice, and galingale’). In the same year, the cosmopolitan text Information for Pilgrims to the Holy Land foreshadowed a hundred foodie blogs in conflating quality of ingredients with obscurity of their source, advising: ‘Of peres..suche other comfytes, the further ye gone the better shall ye fynde, as well as grene gyngere’ (‘As concerns pears … and other such preserves, the further you travel the better quality you’ll find, and the same with green ginger’). These spices serve as metonyms for the geographies from which they come, representing the wide reach of English and French trading ships and the prosperity that enabled Western European nations to import their cargoes.

Recipies blend with medical remedies, with spices featuring in both. In one textbook on surgery, in a fourteenth-century manuscript, we find the recommendation to give patients ‘fleisch..sauerid with swete spicerie, as canel, gynger’ (‘meat … seethed in sweet spices, such as cinnamon, ginger’); in another, copied in the fifteenth century by Yorkshireman Robert Thornton, the list of ‘spices þat are hate: gynger, longe pepir, white pepir, aloes epotik’ (‘spices that are heating: ginger, long pepper, white pepper, liver-coloured [hepatic] aloes’).

Some concoctions sound fairly unpleasant to modern readers – in the 1325, we find instructions for cooking pike or turbot with almond milk, spices, saffron and sugar – though others sound more familiar, such as the ‘good hypocras’ made of wine and spices – mulled wine – recommended by John Lydgate in the fifteenth century. In the Middle English romance Reinbrun, found in the London Auchinleck manuscript of the 1330s, we hear of merchants bringing expensive and varied stocks including spices:

Gingiuer and galingale,
Clowes, quibibes, gren de Paris,
Pyper, and comyn, and swet anis;

Fykes, reisyn, dates,
Almaund, rys, pomme-garnates,

Kanel and setewale …

(Ginger and galingale,
Cloves, cubeb [pepper], grains of Paradise,
Peper, and cumin, and sweet anise;

Figs, raisins, dates,
Almond, rice, pomegranates,
Cinnamon and turmeric … )

These spices were popular – luxury items, certainly, but in the category of luxuries affordable to quite a lot of reasonably well-to-do people, and as a treat, to more. Official documents relating to legal weights and measures give an intriguing insight, recording that ‘warys that be sold by the lb., as peper, saffryn, clowys, mace, gynger and suche other..be called Sotyll Warys’ (‘goods that are sold by the pound, as pepper, saffron, cloves, mace, ginger and such others … are called Subtle Wares’). The term ‘subtle’ suggests refined luxury, but the idea of buying a pound of ginger – let alone saffron – would be beyond most keen cooks’ budgets today.

middle ages feast

Comparative lists, giving the prices of various items – some luxuries, some common purchases – bear out the (relative) availability of spices. In a letter of 1471, one member of the Paston family writes to another, off on business, asking ‘sende me word qwat price a li. of peppyr, clowys, masis, gingyr, and sinamun’ (‘send me word – what price is a pound of pepper, cloves, mace, ginger, and cinnamon?’). As early as the thirteenth century, we find surnames redolent of the spice trade: Roger Spice, William Gingerer, Simon Pepperwhite.

The rich fragrance of spices, and their appealing colours and shapes, lent themselves to imaginative imagery, much of it drawn from the Old Testament. Wycliffe’s Bible translates the ornate lists of spices and aromatics in the Song of Songs into English as ‘fruytis of applis, cipre trees, with narde; narde, and saffrun, an erbe cleipid fistula, and canel, with alle trees of the Liban, myrre, and aloes, with alle the beste oynementis’ (‘fruits of apples, cypress trees, with nard [incense]; nard, and saffron, a herb called cassia, and cinnamon, with all trees of Lybia, myrrh, and aloes, with all the best ointments’).

The same lyricism, and same profusion of spices, is put to very different, and sadder ends, in the Middle English elegy Pearl, where the speaker laments over his dead daughter’s grave and declares:

That spot of spyses mot nedes sprede
Ther such ryches to rot is runne:
Blomes blayke and blwe and rede
Ther schyne ful schyr agayn the sunne.

(‘That spot must spread with spice-plants,
Where such richness has run to rot,
Blossoms yellow and blue and red
Must shine there, clear, against the sun.’)

As this lament reminds us – like the familiar imagery of the myrrh brought to the baby Jesus and foreshadowing his death – spices are also associated with the colder side of religious life. The preparation of spices for medicine gives rise to more monitory and penitential metaphors, such as this description of penitence, found in the didactic Book to a Mother:

Þe soule..pouneþ in a morter of hure conscience monye and diuerse bitter spices of hure synnes. 

(‘The soul … pounds in the mortar of her conscience many and diverse bitter spices of her sins.’)

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‘Thiese serpentes … with white peper theym feden.’

Spice suggests both sanctity and penitence, both sweet taste and bitter medicine, the mingled attraction and danger of the exotic. A (fictional) letter from the great conqueror Alexander claims that dragons – serpents – fed on white pepper.  In Cynthia Harnett’s children’s novel A Load of Unicorn, the ringleaders of a Lancastrian plot against the Yorkist king Edward IV use a quick-witted Cockney spice-peddlar as go-between, and his seemingly innocent tallies of wares conceal a careful scheme to record covert sympathisers to the cause: “I’ll put them down as peppercorns in my list of spices.” 

The same link between spices and enemy threat crops up in Mummers’ Plays, which were recorded in versions from the medieval period onwards. There are several versions of the St George Mummer’s play – one here – and it makes use of the stock characters of medieval interludes and romances: St George, the enemy Turkish knight, the King of Egypt’s beautiful daughter. Early versions give St George a jingling rhymed challenge in defiance of the Turkish knight:

“I’ll slash him and stab him as small as the flies!
And send him to the cookshop to make mincepies!”

Later on, the homely English ‘cookshop’ is replaced with a more exotic location. In 1899, we hear:

“I’ll hack him up as small as dust,
And send him to Jamaica,
To be made into mince-pie crust!”

Here, ‘Jamaica’ probably functions not so much as a ‘real place’ as it does as a generalised symbol of the exotic, a mingled image of racial alterity and of the sugar and spices of mincemeat. Yet the racist undertone is pointed up by a third alternative, which has the valiant St George vow to send his Turkish adversary ‘to Satan, to make his mincepies!’.

Charles Causley’s brilliantly chilling Christmas poem ‘Innocent’s Song’ – which gives the Coventry Carol a run for its money – exploits the same imagery, with its description of the evil King Herod as a ‘smiling stranger/ With hair as white as gin’. Echoing the medieval ‘Saracen’s Head’ delicacy, or the Mummer’s Play with its Turkish knight chopped into spiced mince-meat, Causley’s poem transforms the human figure into a concoction from the medieval kitchen:

Why does he ferry my fireside
As a spider on a thread,
His fingers made of fuses
And his tongue of gingerbread?

Why does the world before him
Melt in a million suns,
Why do his yellow, yearning eyes
Burn like saffron buns?

The image, like the earlier texts, turns a once-real threat of danger into something both more exotic, and more palatable. The texts exoticise and parody images of foreignness in a way that makes us uncomfortable, linking to a disturbingly long tradition of caricatured, indeterminate foreign Others – Saracen, Turkish, Jamaican, Ethiopian; they also draw on the seductive scents and tastes of spices to cover up – like rotten meat – the unsavoury hints of nationalistic propaganda lurking beneath.

But, there is another side to this coin. The images and anecdotes, recipes and remedies and lists of prices for spices here prove to us that medieval English men and women were not cut off from a world of cultural – and racial – difference. Even ingredients we tend not to expect in medieval cooking – sugar, for example, or cubeb peppers, cumin, turmeric – are all there alongside the more traditionally-expected mace, ginger and cinnamon. In the same way, these texts and images are part of a wider reminder that medieval England – and medieval Europe – were not unvaryingly white spaces. The Medieval People of Color project – which I’ve mentioned before, and which regularly receives abusive comments for its excellent work uncovering the histories and images of medieval people of color – gives a fascinating and complex picture.

It’s hard to guess at what ordinary medieval people – of whatever skin colour – thought of the images around them, or of the geographies evoked by the spices that passed through their kitchens. But we can at least look at this history and acknowledge it, think about it, work its images of strangeness and familiarity into our understanding of the medieval past.

Happy Christmas!
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With thanks to Ruth Allen for the St George Mummers’ Play, Sjoerd Levelt for the baby dragon in the margin of BnF Latin 919, and Emma Goss for food styling. 

References:

Food History Almanac, Vol 1, ed. Janet Clarkson (2014)

Peter Millington, ‘Textual Analysis of English Quack Doctor Plays: Some New Discoveries’, Folk Drama Studies Today (2003), 97-132.

Nicola McDonald, ‘Eating People and the Alimentary Logic of Richard Coeur de Lion,’ in Pulp Fictions of Medieval England: Essays in Popular Romance (Manchester: University Press, 2003), pp. 124-150.

Images in this post are taken from Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris. Ms. fr. 2813; London, British Library, Add MS 4213o; Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 919; Musée du Petit-Palais L.Dut.456 and London, British Library, Royal MS 10.

The medical textbooks are to be found respectively in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Ashmole 1396 and Lincoln, Cathedral Library MS 91. The play with the spice-merchant’s ships is found in the Croxton Play of the Sacrament, in Dublin, Trinity College MS 652. The Information for Pilgrims to the Holy Land is found in London, British Library, Cotton Appendix 8. The Book to a Mother is found in Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Bodley 416.

 

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A Medieval English Islamophobic Romance, Written in the Daily Mail

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Crusaders and Saracens Battle. Boulogne sur Mer BM, MS 142, f. 153v (detail)

A few weeks ago, while I was busy with various things including signing an open letter written by my colleague*, I discovered in passing that a very small group of people I’d never met or spoken to were getting quite het up about my teaching of Medieval romance. This was, naturally, a bit of a surprise. My students seemed broadly quite positive about the course, so I put it to the back of my mind. But, this morning, I saw something on David Perry’s blog – Islamophobic rallies in Prague were attended by participants wearing the costumes of medieval Crusaders – and something suddenly clicked for me.

The criticism I’d received had come from a Change.org petition (I’m not sure whether to be insulted or pleased it’s only got 94 signatures, or rather less than a full lecture hall). The main critique focussed on our open letter, but I also came to a criticism – apparently written under the misapprehension that I’m a history lecturer, but clearly referring to my course:

“A more legitimate concern in academia should be that a history lecturer calling for this act of censorship thinks Medieval romance perpetuates Islamophobia –  a breathtaking a-historicism that really should have alarm bells ringing.”

At the time, I was bemused.

Did the writers think Islamophobia didn’t exist in the Middle Ages? Did they not realise that the Crusades took place between Christians and Muslims? Did they think Islam didn’t exist? Or was the issue that I was commenting on these romances as texts that have continued to shape our cultural imagination, rather than dusty historical documents that could not possibly have any influence on present day Islamophobia?

I suspected it was largely the last issue. Medieval romances have a peculiar status in popular imagination. If you ask most people to name a medieval story or a medieval author, they’ll come up with Chaucer. But if you start telling them the plots of medieval romances, they’ll recognise quite a lot of these before they even get close to recognising the plot of, say, The Book of the Duchess or The Prioress’s Tale. And I’m not just talking about the well-known Arthurian legends, or the Robin Hood stories. There’s a children’s picture book, which was one of my big brother’s favourite stories, which retells the tale of the Middle English romance Robert of Sicily, a text so obscure to medievalists that I often have to go through the plot when I talk about it at conferences. The plots and tropes of medieval romances are hidden in plain sight.

By contrast, history is quite regularly cited on all sides of the debate over Islamic/Christian relations (or Islamic/Western relations). President Obama has been heard to refer to the Crusades as an example of Islamophobic warfare; one response – which also claimed the Catholic Church had “almost nothing to do with” the Inquisition – was to label these wars as “a defensive Christian reaction against Muslim madmen of the Middle Ages”. While I applaud the alliteration, and look eagerly forward for the Don Draper spoof it suggests to me, ‘Muslim madmen’ isn’t exactly the most nuanced idea, and nor is it new – and this continuity is what the fiction shows us.

Medieval romances portray Islamic (or ‘Saracen’) opponents as raging, intemperate, unchecked by Christian piety. The Siege of Milan, for example, opens with a description of Saracen atrocities perfectly calculated to enrage Christian listeners:

“The Sultan, Arabas the strong
Warred against Christendom with wrong,

In Tuscany, towns did he win,
And stuffed them full of heathen kin,

The images that there should be,
Both the Cross, and the noble Mary,
He burned them in a fire. 
And then his idols he set up there,
In the churches and abbeys that there were.”

The passage is crammed with clichés. Brute force? Check. Moral absolutes? Check. Desecration of religious icons and pyromaniac destruction of culture? Check. Idol worship? Check. You get the picture. This isn’t a sober historical account of cultural conflict – and I like to imagine hard-bitten Crusaders, permanently sun-burned from years living cheek-by-jowl with their Muslim opposite numbers, sniggering heartily into their beards at the idea of Islamic idol-worshippers. But my absolute favourite detail comes in the middle lines: like a Daily Mail columnist on a slow news day, the writer crams in a topical reference to the dangers of immigration, with the hyperbolic image of Tuscan cities crammed with ‘heathen kin’. THESE MUSLIM EXTREMISTS BURNED A CHURCH: NOW THEY’RE BRINGING THEIR FAMILIES TO YOUR HOLIDAY VILLA!

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Muslim Extremists Sunbathing, circa 1499.                       Bodleian Library, MS Douce 337, f. 85r

Is the history of the Crusades that has seeped into cultural consciousness, or is it the fiction? Images of enemy foreigners, dark-skinned, brutal, impressively strong, and ferociously determined to crush out Christianity and insinuate foreign ‘kin’ into European cities, echo through Medieval romances. Long after we stopped thinking about Medieval romance, we continued to consume stories in which the enemies and anti-heroes are cast from the same mould, part of the same set of tropes.

It’s not hard to see that narratives like the one I quoted above are perpetuating an Islamophobic perspective. But, when we fail to trace contemporary tropes of Islamophobia back to their medieval sources, we miss a crucial part of the narrative.

When the Siege of Milan was likely written, some time around 1400, the world it described was already far in the past. The simplicity of noble, Christian Crusaders and brutal Saracen invaders offers both distraction from much messier contemporary conflicts (the early shadows of the Wars of the Roses, the violent inter-Christian battles with France), and also a covert message about England itself. Like the Daily Mail, the romance seeks to externalise the threat of disorder, to personify it as belonging to foreign aggressors. But at this time, the desecration of church images of ‘the Cross and the noble Mary’ – iconoclasm, that is – was a threat much closer to home. The Lollards, the heretical sect who became prominent towards the end of the fourteenth century, posed a real threat to the statues, icons, and paintings that enriched medieval churches across the country. For readers of this romance in the fifteenth century, the idea of destructive, iconoclastic violence is unmistakably mapped onto earlier images of religious warfare, of Saracen enemies, as if to insist that such a threat could only come from outside.

I suspect we want to believe that a medieval world capable of the brutality of the Crusades was motivated by simple, ideological hatred. Yes, such brutality – witnessed by historical records – is appalling, but these people were not like us. The murky, conflicted and submerged fears I see in this medieval romance make me question that assumption. This fiction allows its readers to externalise those conflicted, nagging fears that come from within and to give them simpler, more tangible forms, to translate them into stark archetypes of good and evil. It does not merely reflect a past society that hated and feared Islam; it reflects a past society that exploited the idea of hatred and fear of Islam for its own ends. This, for some people, is a disturbing idea, an idea that must be slapped down as ‘a-historical’. If we accept that medieval Christendom was motivated by something more cynical, more complex, than burning religious ideology and passionate conviction, then we’re faced with the disturbing possibility that we are, truly, not so very different from the Crusaders who committed those atrocities.

Postscript

The image at the top of my post shows armies neatly identified by their respective religious symbols: the cross for the Christian crusaders; the crescent for their Muslim opponents. But underneath this image, in pointed contrast to its militaristic aggression, is an image you might read as cultural exchange, or at least as an interesting contrast to the scene above. It shows two people sitting in a military tent – perhaps during a lull in the fighting – playing a game of chess.

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Boulogne sur Mer BM, MS 142, f. 153v (detail)

Note *

This open letter is discussed here and here. It concerned a promotional video for the University of Cambridge, which was presented by David Starkey.

Witches and Wicked Bodies: Imagining the ‘Other’

Agostino Veneziano (fl. 1509–1536), The Witches’ Rout (The Carcass). Engraving, c. 1520. Exhibition Poster for 'Witches and Wicked Bodies' at the British Museum

Agostino Veneziano (fl. 1509–1536), The Witches’ Rout (The Carcass). Engraving, c. 1520. Exhibition Poster for ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies’ at the British Museum

This weekend I went to the ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies‘ exhibition at the British Museum. It’s free, and open until January 11th, and I really enjoyed it.

It’s not a big exhibition, and it’s all moody and wintery with very little colour (mostly black-and-white prints and drawings and so on). There are a few ‘flashbacks’ to the earlier sources that influenced later artists, including a really gorgeous Boeotian Greek vase with an image of the witch Odysseus meets, Circe, pictured as an African woman.

This made me think about race, and I noticed was that a lot of the post-medieval imagery attached to witches is similar to the anti-semitic imagery of medieval England and Europe. Medieval attitudes to Jews and witches were at the front of my mind anyway, because on Friday I taught the passage in Langland’s late fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman where Christ is condemned to death in front of a baying crowd of spiteful Jewish accusers, and one of the accusations they throw at him (twice) is that of witchcraft:

‘”Crucifige!” quod a cachepol, “I warante hym a wicche!”‘
(‘”Crucify him!” said a tax officer, “I bet that he is a witch!”‘)
Piers Plowman B, XVIII 46

Now, this comment is actually pretty odd, in its context. A lot of people assume that medieval accusations of witchcraft were all over the place, because there’s a very popular misconception that, well, medieval people were all barbaric and woman-hating, so obviously they must have been burning witches left, right and centre? Right? Well, wrong. That’s the early Moderns, and they preferred to hang them, anyway.

It’s not that medieval people never mention witches. As I’ve said in a previous post, Robert Mannying (writing in the early fourteenth century) has a brilliant story dripping with innuendo, about a witch who gets the better of the local bishop. But, by and large, medieval England doesn’t have the witch-mania that came later, accompanied by hangings and inquisitions and the generation of all the stereotypes we associate with witches today.

What’s they do have – and the scene in Piers Plowman that mentions witchcraft is full of it – is anti-semitism. And as I went around the exhibition, I realized that, actually, the imagery of these two kinds of ‘evil Other’ were echoing each other.

Crusaders slaughter Jewish men. French Bible Illumination, taken from this site.

Crusaders slaughter Jewish men. French Bible Illumination, taken from this site.

Medieval anti-semitic images and texts typically represent Jews, one of the arch-enemies of Christianity, as male. Saracens (ie., Muslims) are often women who fall into the enduringly racist ‘dusky-skinned princess destined to be saved by handsome white man’ trope. But most Jewish figures are men. As you can see in the image above, like witches, medieval Jews as represented by non-Jewish people have distinctive attributes. Here, in addition to their pointed Jewish hats, the Jewish men kneeling in the bottom right-hand corner are leaning, twisting their bodies anti-clockwise, while their attackers lean and gesture in a clockwise motion.

This is a pretty common trope in iconography (I went to a cracking lecture on it by, if I remember rightly, Anthony Bale. Depressingly, the lecture was so good I was concentrating more on that than on who gave it!). Jewish figures are often pictured moving anticlockwise (‘widdershins’), or reaching out with their (sinister) left hands. And here, in the exhibition, the same visual point was being made in images culmination with Dürer’s Witch Riding backwards on a Goat: just as Jews lean anti-clockwise (‘widdershins’), so too the post-medieval witches dancing in that direction or ride facing backwards to indicate their unnatural position in the world.

Witches were imagined eating babies and poisoning wells; in medieval anti-semitic stories we find stories of Jewish communities murdering children (like the revoltingly pious little song-school scholar in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale, who continues to sing hymns to the Virgin Mary even after evil Jews have cut up his body and hidden it in a privy). The medieval story that Jews used the blood of murdered Christians to bake their matzos translates nicely into the giant’s ‘I’ll grind your bones to make my bread,’ but it’s also picked up in images of cannibalistic witches.

The parallels extended to accessories. There was one amazing seventeenth-century German picture of a witches’ sabbath, which included a ring of women dancing to the accompaniment of a giant black hare. The longer you looked, the more pairs of Cheshire-cat eyes and hunched catty backs you noticed hiding in the corners of the image. And I knew that Black cats seem to have had a dubious reputation in a lot of contexts, before becoming our preferred image of the witch’s familiar. Alan of Lille claimed that Cathers – twelfth-century heretics – were in the habit of kissing black cats on the arse, which was obviously a sign of devil-worship.

Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, U 964, fol. 376r

Bibliothèque cantonale et universitaire de Lausanne, U 964, fol. 376r. Image from Discarding Images.

A few medievalists I know have been wondering why on earth this intrepid archer is shooting such a vulnerably-positioned cat – now do we know why? Cat arses: dangerous business.

Sure enough, in her book on the emergence of anti-semitic medieval imagery, Sara Lipton finds thirteenth-century images of Jews kissing black cats, too. She also finds that toads – as images of greed – became part of the same iconography, as did ravens. You can see where this is going.

Now, naturally, as my friend observed while we were going round the exhibition, the rumours and images and anecdotes are easily adapted to fit new bogeymen (women?) in every generation. But for me, it’s particularly interesting when a set of images that were centred around one gender shift across to the other gender. What was it that changed? 

The paraphernalia we’ve become accustomed to associating with witches – with cackling, evil caricatures of the real people who were executed for their Otherness, like the early-Modern witches hanged in England and abroad, and like the Jewish communities murdered or expelled from twelfth-century England – is a meme used to instil fear. Once, this imagery stirred up, and simultaneously justified, medieval anti-semitism to people whose country had got rid of its Jewish population. Then, it became the imagery of the women society wanted to stare at, shudder at, and use to frighten children. And it has endured.

Notes

Aside from the book linked to above, there’s an article by Lipton that’s worth reading (and the title alone is great): ‘Jews, Heretics and the Sign of the Cat in the Bible Moralisée,’ Word and Image 8 (1992): 362-77.

In the medieval illumination, I’ve just noticed God is looking leftwards too. What’s that about?

Irritatingly, when I came across Daily Fail article about this exhibition, they claimed that the exhibition poster (The Witches’ Rout, an engraving by Veneziano dated to c. 1520) was ‘typical of the terrifying witches of the fifteenth century’. Now, either someone writing doesn’t understand how century-naming works (it’s actually quite common, that), or they figured meh, what does it matter, it’s more or less medieval and who really cares that this exhibition seemed to be making some kind of point by starting with the Renaissance, eh?

Grr.

Male Fantasies, Historical Fiction, and Game of Thrones Geekery

 

This is how I imagine John Snow would die. You know nothing, John Snow.  The Hague, KB, KA 20, f. 34r. From http://manuscripts.kb.nl/show/images/KA+20/page/2

This is how I imagine Jon Snow would die. You know nothing, John Snow.
The Hague, KB, KA 20, f. 34r. From this site.

This is an unashamedly geeky post, which I writing because it’s hot, and I’ve been doing a lot of proofreading, and because I enjoyed writing about Game of Thrones, misogyny and medieval romance last time. I’ve had a question from Rachel Moss (tweeting over on @WetheHumanities today) going round and round in my head today. She was talking about the popularity of the medieval era for fiction writers, and asked ‘What is it about the Middle Ages than encourages people to use it for fantasy?’

As I was thinking about this question, I came across this piece, titled ‘Why “Game of Thrones” Isn’t Medieval, and Why That Matters’. Now, normally, that title would make my heart sing, because I am fed up with the lazy justifications of G. R. R. M.’s misogyny as ‘just the way it was back in the Dark Ages’. There were some nice points in the article about how Martin picks different technologies from different eras. And I liked the point that, aesthetically, Game of Thrones is closer to Victorian romanticism of the medieval, than to the medieval itself. But, unfortunately, so is this article.

The author, Breen, puts forward the argument, basically, that Martin’s world isn’t medieval because it’s too technologically and scientifically advanced. The majority of Martin’s world, he argues “belong[s] to what historians call the ‘early modern’ period”.

I admit, in my fantasy world, there will be some kind of cosmic retribution system for anyone who uses the phrase ‘what historians call the [insert name] period’. I’ve never seen two historians agree unreservedly on the limits of pretty much any historical period, and when they do, you can be damn sure they won’t be talking about the medieval/early Modern division. But here’s what the author describes as being definitively post-medieval in Martin’s world:

“Seven large kingdoms, each with multiple cities and towns, share a populous continent. Urban traders ply the Narrow Sea in galleys, carrying cargoes of wine, grains, and other commodities to the merchants of the Free Cities in the east. Slavers raid the southern continent and force slaves to work as miners, farmers, or household servants. There is a powerful bank based in the Venice-like independent republic of Braavos. A guild in Qarth dominates the international spice trade. Black-gowned, Jesuit-like “Maesters” create medicines, study the secrets of the human body, and use “far-eyes” (telescopes) to observe the stars. In King’s Landing, lords peruse sizable libraries and alchemists experiment with chemical reactions and napalm-like fires. New religions from across the sea threaten old beliefs; meanwhile, many in the ruling elite are closet atheists. And politically, in the aftermath of the Mad King and Joffrey, the downsides of hereditary monarchy are growing more obvious with every passing day.”

These early fourteenth-century Lincolnshire folks better not be drinking wine before they've learned to import it! London, BL, MS Add. 42130, f. 208

These early fourteenth-century Lincolnshire folks better not be drinking wine before they’ve learned to import it!
London, BL, MS Add. 42130, f. 208

So: what makes a world post-medieval is good trade networks, navigation, urbanisation, scientific inquiry, religious diversity, and growing disinclination for hereditary monarchy (no one told Henry VIII about that last one, did they?). To me, a lot of this sounded rather like the Roman Empire, but I’m no Classicist (and I couldn’t think of a parallel to the Iron Bank). I couldn’t really see how any of it was distinctively post-medieval, as opposed to fifteenth-century English, and I’m inclined to think the Braavosi are Lombard bankers, or maybe the Florentines who’d financed Edward III’s wars back in the fourteenth century.

However, Breen goes on, rather disingenuously I thought, to discount the fifteenth century that Martin claims to be drawing upon, and to look at the High Middle Ages:

“A world that actually reflected daily life in the High Middle Ages (12th-century Europe) would be one without large cities or global networks. A diversity of religions would be inconceivable. Many aristocrats wouldn’t be able to read, let alone maintain large libraries. And no one would even know about the continents across the ocean.”

What Daenerys has in store for the wildlings. London, BL, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 62r. Note: I'm showing you elephants for a reason ...

What Daenerys has in store for the wildlings. London, BL, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 62r. Note: I’m showing you elephants for a reason …

Because I’m nice, I’ll accept that what the author means by ‘large cities’ and ‘large libraries’ isn’t defined, so he may have a point. That said, wiki (yes, I’m citing wiki. You’ll live) reckons the population of Paris in 1200 was about 110,000. In 1530 (‘early Modern’ according to the author), the population of London was about 50,000. The point about many aristocrats being unable to read is one that makes me want to curl up and whimper in a darkened room, and I accept that’s one of the inevitable side effects of writing 90,000 words on medieval reading and calling it work. But it’s the claims about religion and geographic knowledge that get me the most.

For starters, let’s look at what medieval Europe knew about continents across the sea and ‘global networks’. Twelfth-century England knew that Africa existed – there’s a brilliant series of books called The Image of the Black in Western Art, which demonstrate that true-to-life images of black Africans made their way into Western Art at a pretty early stage. They knew of the more distant reaches of the Islamic world, to a surprisingly detailed degree. I came across this lovely article about Arabic influences on medieval England, which claims the earliest Arabic-English loan word to be the Old English word ‘ealfara’. In the Anglo-Norman romance Boeve de Hamtoun, written sometime around the last decade of the twelfth century, hero explains:

“I was in Nubia, and Carthage, and the land of the Slavs, and at the Dry Tree, and in Barbary [North Africa], and Macedonia ….”

(quoted from Dorothee Metzlitzki, The Matter of Araby in Medieval England (London: Yale University Press, 130).

Österreichische Nationalbibliothek,

Saracens and Crusaders.

As this quotation might remind you, England was a nation familiar with the Crusades, which necessitated contact with Islamic religion and culture, but that’s not the only way in which the idea that twelfth-century England was a religious monoculture is inaccurate. At the beginning of the twelfth century, in England, there were basically two religions you’d expect most people to belong to: Christian (majority) or Jewish (minority). It also seems likely, looking at the prohibitions against witchcraft and superstition you find, that there were also people whose beliefs and practises were, at the very least, not exactly theologically orthodox Christianity. I don’t really study the twelfth century, but when I do, I’m always struck by the extent to which scholars were working with concepts not only from Christianity, but also from Judaism and Islam. In fact, this period is sometimes called the ‘twelfth century Renaissance’ because the rapid changes to intellectual life and culture marked a kind of ‘rebirth’ of learning. This book is just slightly later, but check it out – it’s Euclid’s mathematical textbook, written originally in Greek, translated into Arabic, and, in this thirteenth-century version, into Latin. How’s that for networking?!

As you might expect – and appropriately in the context of Game of Thrones – there are some rather horrible downsides to this era. For starters, anti-semitism seems to have been predictably present, leading up to the official explusion of the Jewish people from England at the end of the thirteenth century, and including the notorious massacre of York’s Jewish population in 1190. Slavery – both of serfs who were born into a system of extremely limited rights, and of foreign captives or trafficked men and women – isn’t a uniquely early Modern phenomenon either. The Vikings, when they weren’t busy journeying to Constantinople and being part of the Varangian Guard, were enthusiastic slave traders. In short, twelfth-century England (and Europe) had both the good and the bad bits of what the author of this article believes to be uniquely post-medieval about George R. R. Martin’s pseudo-medieval fantasy.

And I think it’s this – the genuine nuance of medieval England, the complicated, mixed-up world where people were both barbarically anti-semitic and intellectually fascinated by Arabic and Hebrew learning, where merchants traded with Africa yet also looked at maps that placed black men alongside monsters on the edges of the world – that the author of this article can’t get to grips with.

Concluding the article, he observes:

“as Martin’s books progress, we find that his is a world where women and people of color struggle to gain leadership roles, where religious diversity (if not toleration) proliferates, where characters debate the ethics of abetting slave labor, and where banks play shady roles in global politics.

Sound familiar?”

Breen’s argument singles these aspects of Martin’s narrative as historical anomalies, things unheard of prior to the early Modern world. He relies for contrast on a fantasy version of medieval Europe, a fantasy of the primitive world that lies beyond the world we know, just as monsters and dragons lie at the edges of medieval mappaemundi, beyond the borders of the known world.

The Hereford Mappamundi. England, c. 1285.

The Hereford Mappamundi. England, c. 1285.

Yet, these maps were made not as cartography, but as religious idealism: they do not represent the world as medieval people knew it, but the world as the medieval Church wanted to imagine it. This fantasy glosses over the complexity of the Middle Ages under the guise of interest in ‘strong women’ or ‘women and people of colour as leaders’.

I get that this is a nice trendy argument. We love historical fantasy because it offers up to us an unflinchingly grim perspective on our own struggles. It might be unfair to speculate that it’s particularly common for right-on leftie white men to appreciate such unflinching, grim perspective, perhaps because it’s less of a novelty to the rest of us? The problem is, I suspect you can make the same observations about pretty much any period of history. Can you imagine a time when women and people of colour decided, en masse and without exception, ‘ah, heck, let’s just accept our destinies and keep our heads down’? No, me either. Though I can think of plenty of periods in which rather more scholarship has been devoted to noble white men who worked to free slaves and emancipate women, than to the slaves, ex-slaves and women who worked alongside them.

Michael Gove, An Idiot in History

This is a quick post, which I couldn’t help writing when I read what Michael ‘I’m not a racist but’ Gove has been saying about the teaching of history. Apparently, our Noble Educator claims:

“There’s children, including my own, who can’t remember, well perhaps didn’t even know in the first place, whether the Romans, Egyptians or the Greeks came in which particular order and whether or not the Vikings were their antagonists, protagonists, sons or daughters.”

One might begin by observing that there’s children, not including any I teach, who know that ‘children’ is plural and that the correct form is ‘there are children’. But that would be cheap sniping, and lord forbid we engage in any of that.

To be serious: I have a real difficulty with Gove’s statement. No doubt he would, if he were asked, claim it wasn’t a deeply considered statement, just an off-the-cuff remark, and that’s why it’s so shallow and ahistorical. But can that really excuse Gove’s rhetoric?

The description of ‘Romans, Egyptians and Greeks’ coming in a ‘particular order’ harks back, for me, to the way history was presented in the most old-fashioned books: as a procession with one civilization overtaking another, like a baton relay race where the leaders were always the most advanced and those who’d been overtaken quietly dropped out. In reality, of course, Romans, Egyptians and Greeks all lived during the same time periods. Indeed, it is perfectly possible to be Roman, Greek, or Egyptian today. Perhaps Michael Gove imagines that only the most illustrious (=Western?) moments of any given civilization should be given due prominence, but if so, I would love to know which brief slice of time he intends to immortalize as ‘the British’? The tenth century? The fifteenth? World War I?

No, I suspect Gove means, English (sorry! British! No doubt he meant British!) history is a constant focus. At the far borders of Our Great Nation, in the margins of Great British History, there is space (in neatly chronological order) for Egypt (no time period … doubtless it’s all pretty much the same over the centuries, doncha know, lots of sand and so on), for Greece (Classical, minus the phalluses of course), and for Rome (Imperial).

Gove’s fundamentally racist view is pretty easy to take down, admittedly. But views like his are based in an ignorance that does a lot of damage. If we teach history as a discrete set of civilizations, we teach our children to believe that the view of the dominant military power is the most important. We erase from history the lesser-known cultures, the cultures that are already suffering under the bias of contemporary racism. We ignore the rich interactions between civilizations that resulted in medieval English churches built with Roman stone, in Greek gems made into Northumbrian jewellery, in Iranian spices used in fifteenth-century cooking, in Italian ideas about mathematics dispersed to feed into the lonely thought processes of reclusive seventeenth-century physicists, in polymaths of all nations gathering to work on twentieth and twenty-first century scientific developments in Britain.

I’ll be fairly fed up if Gove’s ignorance replaces that collaboration with a number-line view of the past, but I won’t be surprised: this isn’t history, it’s jingoism peddled by an idiot.

Update:

I’ve now found a longer quotation from Gove in the Telegraph, which ends:

“The thing that I want people to have is an understanding of the past and an ability to analyse. And if students at the end of studying history come out as Maxists who hate the oppressive narrative of baronial rule that is the spine of English history, as long as they love history, I will be delighted.”

Baronial rule, the spine of English history? Excuse me while, as a medievalist, I leave to laugh myself silly …